The history of history

img_2917Last week Mark and I enjoyed a short stay in Tarragona, a city in Catalonia about five hours’ drive from here. Tarragona started out as Tarraco, the capitol of part of Roman Hispania and Caesar Augustus’s winter getaway. The picture above is of a statue of the Snowbird Emperor, as I’ve come to think of him, although I’m guessing he came in a galley and not a Winnebago with a bunch of “See Rock City!”  and “We’re spending our children’s inheritance!” bumper stickers on the back.

Tarragona has many delights, but, geeks that we are, we concentrated on the Roman sites. That focus actually didn’t narrow the field much, as there’s a lot in this category to see. For example, we ate our first dinner in Tarragona at a restaurant overlooking a park and the ruins of an amphitheater that once seated 15,000 people. This amphitheater once boasted, among other delights, gladiatorial fights and the burning of Christians. Behind the ruins, the Mediterranean rolled its gentle sea rhythm, and we were shaded by a vine-covered pergola. That was not too shabby a start.

We began our first full day in Tarragona at the Praetorium. It was Augustus’s quarters in Tarraco, and local legend says that Pontius Pilate was born there. Much of the building was redone in the Middle Ages, but you can still walk through an arched Roman tunnel out to the remains of the Circus Maximus. This is the tunnel Augustus would have used to go take in the odd chariot race in the Circus. One curve of the track and some of the stands remain, and models and drawings allow you to get a sense of how the area looked during its glory days.

Our next stop was the archeological promenade next to the Roman city walls. Again, the walls were modified in the Middle Ages, but most of the wall is original (from the 3rd Century B.C.) and is spectacular. The promenade is beautifully landscaped and runs about three-quarters of a mile. Opposite the walls, stairs lead up to overlooks with views of the sea. And statues like the one pictured above and signs with information about Roman times dot the side of the walkway. One set of signs talked about Scipio, the Roman general who, against the odds, defeated the Carthaginians in Hispania in the Second Punic War (have to be careful with Auotcorrect on that name) and established a base camp here that evolved into a city. Pliny the Elder wrote about Scipio and his work in Tarraco.

Deviating briefly from our Roman theme, we next visited the Cathedral, which was, well, very cathedral-y. My favorite part was the courtyard, which is surrounded by a loggia and contains beautiful flowers and orange trees. Moving back to the Romans, we next toured the remains of the local forum, where people socialized, worshipped in a temple to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, and transacted business. Not a lot is still here, as much of the site was destroyed during a city expansion in the 19th century.

Our last stop that day was a section of Roman aqueduct outside of town. Google maps took us on the scenic route, to say the least, but the end result was totally worth it. The aqueduct is composed of three levels of arches supporting a long sluice at the top. The section we saw was in great shape, and we clambered up a hill to get a look at the sluice. The engineering is amazing.

The next day we saw sites that were a bit farther afield. Our first stop was an early Christian cemetery, used between the third and fifth centuries CE and home during part of that time to a basilica. The cemetery reportedly grew up around the grave of St. Fructuoso, one of the Christians martyred in the amphitheater described above. (I have to admit that the name Fructuoso was a new one to me, and I fleetingly contemplated searching for the companion grave of St. Sucroso.) Fellow Christians wanted some holy osmosis, I guess, and arranged to be buried near the martyr. In all, over 2,000 graves have been discovered at the cemetery, and an underground mausoleum and displays of sarcophagi and funerary mosaics rounded out the tour.

After that we drove to the so-called Scipio’s Tower, which is said to be a funerary monument to Scipio, even though it dates from a later period than his and he was reportedly buried at his villa in Italy. Then we went to see the Berá Arch, which was built in the first century BC. It’s in remarkably good shape and stands on a grassy island on a road still called the Via Augusta, after Cesar. We left the Arch and had a lovely lunch on the way back to the hotel at a restaurant that served its meals in an interior courtyard. The courtyard contains several trees with low, leafy canopies, so you eat in the dappled shade. It’s delightful. The only odd thing about the restaurant was its advertisement of “Breakfast of Fork” for €8.50. I have no idea what that means.

So that’s our itinerary. However, our trip was more than just a series of places, as cool as those places were. It was also an opportunity to reflect on how history is shaped by what is told and what’s not, what is preserved and shown and what’s not. For example, we know that part of the Forum was destroyed for new construction in the 19th century, but what about the much more recent construction of the three-story shopping mall next door to the early Christian cemetery? It’s an odd sensation to sit in the food court in a busy mall, sipping your soda from McDonald’s and wondering who’s buried in an amphora underneath you. Too, some history just doesn’t make the cut. Iberians get no mention in Tarragona’s historical exhibits, but they inhabited what became Tarraco well before the Carthaginians arrived. They traded with the Greeks and Phoenicians, built city walls on which the Roman walls were later constructed, and provided Scipio with valuable supplies and information during his battles. And some history is just cheerfully, overtly fake. As I noted above, the Scipio Tower has nothing to do with Scipio. Somebody just noted that there were two figures carved on it, decided that they must be Scipio and his fellow general brother, and the Tower got its present name. There’s history to our history, and it’s not always clear.

It is possible to learn some of our history’s history, though, and that process seems refreshingly honest when you encounter it. The best example I can provide you here is the sign next to the statue of Augustus shown above. The first part of the sign explains that the statue is a cast of one in the Vatican’s collection, minus a random dolphin and Cupid hanging off the right leg of the original. But the explanation continues, noting that Italy gave the statue to Spain in 1934 as a show of friendship from Mussolini to Franco. The statue was hidden away to keep it safe during the Civil War and then reinstalled in 1939 during a goodwill tour of a Mussolini government official. So conflicts old and new are explained and sins laid bare in this one, brief sign.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to see interesting and beautiful historical sites. I also  wish for all of us to get access to more of the history of the history. The United States, of course, is struggling with this issue right now. We’re asking questions like the ones I wondered about in Tarragona.  Who was here before the conquerors showed up, and what were they like?  What barbarity is associated with this beautiful structure or that handsome statue? What’s been covered up or suppressed or lost? What falsehoods do we tell ourselves about “historical” monuments and movements and people? Once we start answering those questions and see that history has both literal and figurative layers, perhaps we can begin to deal with the biggest question of all: How do we come to terms with a history that is a mixed bag of good and evil? To me, that coming to terms would in itself be a historical event. So maybe our current questioning and searching is the history of the history. And it seems to me that’s a great place to begin.





Summertime, and the Livin’ Is Tinto

img_2876As you may know, Spain is prohibiting most travelers from the USA from entering the country. This prohibition stems from concerns about the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the USA. For its part, Spain has experienced a small uptick in cases since reopening about two weeks ago, reporting 200 new cases and three deaths yesterday (June29). Most of these cases, though, are located in pockets in Madrid, Catalonia, Aragon, and Andalusia. Several of the cases are linked to persons entering Spain to work on farms and in meat-packing facilities. This isolation allows for quarantine and tracing to take place.  At the same time, masking and social distancing requirements remain and are enforceable by the police by on-the-spot citations carrying fines of up to €1,000.

Here in our nest in Torrevieja, life continues to be good. We see friends, go to restaurants, and take daily walks. We’re planning a day trip with friends to visit some nearby historical sites. And, of course, we read, chat with friends and family via Zoom, and exercise most days. It’s a good life which isn’t terribly different from our pre-COVID existence, if you don’t count wearing masks and social distancing.

The biggest change in our life recently is the arrival of summer. We’d planned to travel all summer, both in Europe and in the USA, but of course that’s not happening now. But we have a couple of pleasures associated with summertime that I’d like to share with you.

The first is swimming in the sea. The Mediterranean is outside our doorway, and we take full advantage of that fact. Most days we meander down to a small inlet near us that somewhat protected from the wave action. We toss our beach bag in the shade of the pedestrian walk’s retaining wall, strip off our T-shirts, and head into the water. It’s cool but not bone-chillingly cold, and you have to go out about 75 feet before the water is over your head. This is, therefore, prime floating territory. Sea salt makes your body very buoyant; it’s easy to lie back and stare at the puffy white clouds that drift by overhead. After half an hour or so, we generally get out of the water, reverse the T-shirt and bag process, and go home. We could hang out on the beach, but I both burn easily and dislike getting sand inside my clothes. As a result,  our little jaunts are perfect.

One other joy of summer here is Tinto Verano – red summer wine. This is a mixture of red wine and lemonade that’s sold in bottles like the one shown above. It’s a bit like sangria without the chunks of fruit floating in it. Tinto Verano tastes tangy and refreshing, and it’s a lovely drink to sip on the balcony at the end of the day, catching the sea breezes and watching the world go by. It comes in alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions, and we like both of them.

It’s not like the problems of the world have gone away this summer. As noted above, COVID-19 is still present in Spain and appears to be racing across much of our beloved home country. In fact, the first member of our family to test positive was diagnosed last week. Too, tourism forms a large part of Torrevieja’s economy, but travelers seem scarce. Our pedestrian walk, the Paseo Marítimo, should be packed in the evenings, and it’s not. Some restaurants have closed permanently. Daunting social issues such as systemic racism top the headlines; on a personal level, we have several dear friends struggling with bad health and, in a couple of cases, deep grief over recent losses of loved ones. But just for right now, and just for this afternoon, I’m going to savor the joys of this summer. Mark and I will head to the beach soon, and this evening we’ll lift our glasses of Tinto Verano as the day winds down. And as we do, we will drink to you, deriving what joy you can from your summer days as well.




Mural, mural on the wall

img_2868-1Last Saturday Mark, our friend Nancy, and I visited Orihuela. That’s a city of about 34,000 people that lies half an hour’s drive from us. Orihuela is an old city; it was well-established by 859CE, when Vikings attacked it, and still remembers its crafty  Visigoth king, Theodemir, who negotiated with invading Muslim troops headed by Ibn Musa and managed to retain a degree of sovereignty over his realm. Today, the city has some interesting historical sites, including a ruined Arab castle, a medieval cathedral, and a museum of floats from the Holy Week processions and the parade of Moors and Christians that take place each year.

We bypassed the long-ago sites this visit, though, in order to visit a more contemporary memorial. The neighborhood of San Isidro in Orihuela is home to approximately 200 murals remembering Miguel Hernandez, one of the foremost Spanish poets of the 20th century. The murals all appear on the sides of buildings in the area. Hernandez was born in Orihuela and had only a rudimentary formal education. But his poetry was soon recognized as being both simple and profound, and he moved further into the public eye with his leftist political activity. He became a Communist and was affiliated with the Spanish Republican government.

When the Civil War broke out in 1936, Hernandez joined the opposition to Franco and fought in one of the militias in the war. When Franco triumphed, Hernandez was arrested and sentenced to death. Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and others interceded on his behalf, but the best they could do was a commutation of his sentence to 30 years in prison. His wife Josefina and his sons suffered in poverty during this period. Their first son died as a result of hunger, and Josefina famously wrote to her husband in prison to say that she and their second son were surviving on onions and bread. This letter inspired one of Hernandez’s most famous poems, “Onion Lullaby.” Hernandez contracted tuberculosis in prison and died there in 1942.

Franco died in 1975, and King Juan Carlos I and the Spanish government began the process of moving away from totalitarianism. In 1976, murals honoring Hernandez first appeared on the walls of the houses in San Isidro. This happened despite the intervention of armed police, who tried to stop the painting process. Over the years, the political climate opened up, and Hernandez’s work as a poet and an activist began to be celebrated. Now, Orihuela holds a festival in March to restore the existing murals and add new ones. The festival includes music, dancing, speeches, and, I’m guessing, lots of alcohol. This is Spain, after all.

So that brings us to our visit to the murals. Saturday was hot, but after eating way too many delicious tapas at a local cafe, the three of us clapped on our hats and wandered the neighborhood. We took pictures, exclaimed over various displays, and tried to translate passages quoted on the walls. Some are real works of art. Some are rather amateurish. Some seem kind of random; there’s a tribute to Sojourner Truth near the gas station, for example. But to visit the murals is both sad, because of Hernandez’s fate, and inspiring. One of my favorite murals is the one shown above. This mural appears on the side of a school, and, as you see, the picture is simply lots of hands. The (translated) quotation from Hernandez’s poem is, “Hands are the tools of the soul.” I believe that. I love that.

As an American, it’s interesting to contemplate the process of remembering a dark period in history. We all know about the debates in the USA regarding removing statues honoring Confederates. For its part, Spain is still grappling with the legacy of Franco and the Fascism he brought to this country. There’s a lot of process there, and perhaps that’s for another blog post, after I come to understand more. All I can tell you now, though, is this: the statues and symbols of Franco and his regime are either in museums or gone entirely. Franco isn’t forgotten, but he’s not celebrated, either. In contrast, the murals honoring Miguel Hernandez blaze out in their lovely colors in the Spanish sunshine, inviting visitors to contemplate poetry and politics. And the hands that refurbish and add to these murals? I think like Hernandez thought. I think that they are the tools of the soul.



Apple pie

img_2857-1We had a death in the family yesterday. Oh, no person passed away, but a relationship died.

I’m not going to identify the person in question, at Mark’s request. Suffice it to say that this is a relation by marriage. This is what happened. Yesterday morning, I was still in my pjs, hanging on the couch with my coffee and Facebook. I happened to look at a post by the friend of another relative in the same branch of the family. The topic on this post, as on so many others, was the ongoing protests over the systemic racism in the USA. One of the comments was about the autonomous zone (should that be capitalized?) in Seattle. The person in question commented as follows: “Kill them all! Let God sort them out.” 


I knew that this part of Mark’s family was conservative, right-wing self-described “Christian,” and very into guns, but I mean – words fail me. Folks, that doesn’t happen often.

I know the origin of this phrase, although I have no idea whether the poster does. It’s attributed to a French Cistercian monk named Arnaud Almaric. Almaric was the official representative of the ironically-named Pope Innocent III, who promised in 1209 that anyone who went on crusade against the Cathars, a group of French Christians who had rejected some tenets of Roman Catholicism, could keep the land they seized. French nobleman Simon de Montfort decided to take the Pope up on his offer and attacked a town in southern France, Béziers, where the Cathars and Catholics had lived together peacefully for years. The invaders showed up on July 22, the Feast Day of Mary Magdalene, which Cathars and Catholics observed together. The Catholics of Béziers refused to surrender the Cathars to de Montfort. The invaders then attacked. Reportedly a soldier asked Almaric how they could distinguish between fellow Catholics and Cathars. Almaric is quoted as responding, “Kill them all. God will know his own.” So they did. And over the next 40 years, roughly 1,000,000 people were killed in this bloody domestic crusade.

The epithet has refused to die. American Special Forces adapted the phrase into its current form during the war in Vietnam. It was also the name of Metallica’s first album. The phrase continues to be associated with massacres and genocides.

And here it was on Facebook, posted by a relation. I showed it to Mark, who was as horrified as I was.

Virtually every family, I suspect, struggles with what to do with members who say horrible things. Excruciating conversations at holidays, for example, are commonplace. I had one uncle who always got drunk and loud and obnoxious at Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings. That was fun. But many of us are struggling now with how to handle relationships with family members who are advocating what can only be described as evil. Usually, in our situation, this comes from people who consider themselves to be Christian, even though their statements and actions would have poor Jesus whirling in his grave if he were still in it. How are we supposed to handle this?

Mark decided to handle it by cutting off the relationship with the person in question. He sent a message saying that we never want to see that person again. This practically is not a big deal, as these are not people with whom we’ve spent a great deal of time. In fact, I’m not sure I could pick the poster out of a lineup. But are we part of the problem by ceasing to engage? It feels like there’s a yes in there, but it also feels like there’s a boundary that just can’t be crossed. I’m all right with that, and Mark seems to be, too. But it also feels like a loss, like an ending. It feels like a death in the family.

I  decided  to deal with the hubbub by baking the apple pie pictured above. Butter and sugar are comfort foods, right? If I do say so myself, it turned out pretty well. Of course, I made a complete mess in the kitchen while cooking, which leads me to wonder why anyone would use the phrase “apple pie order” to describe cleanliness and order. And it also brought up a memory from childhood. My brother, who’s nine years older than I, was a child of the ‘60s. He dropped out and tuned in, growing his hair long and protesting the war. All of these behaviors drove my conservative WWII veteran father crazy. The specific memory that came to me was when my brother put up a quote from H. Rap Brown on his bedroom wall: “Violence is as American as apple pie.” In truth, Brown said “cherry pie,” and my brother used a sheet of cardboard for his sign that had come in my dad’s shirts from Munro’s Dry Cleaners, but we were a bit behind in Beaumont. Anyway, it took Dad and my brother years to find some equilibrium with each other. Some of those scars never healed.

As we sit down to pie today, I have no idea whether this death in our family will ever heal, either. All I can say is this: if you’re in the same situation as we are, there’s a slice waiting on our table for you.







Grass angels

img_2719This is a picture of a mountain laurel bloom. I took it in Texas last summer. Sadly, these plants don’t have a fragrance. But they do grow to be hardy and beautiful, despite intense heat, hungry deer, occasional brutal freezes, and frequent droughts. Perhaps the Talmud is right when it says, “Behind every blade of grass is an angel whispering, ‘Grow.’” Grass angels must work overtime on mountain laurels.

Actually, I’ve been thinking about growth a lot this week. First and foremost, one of my dearest friends in the world really needs growth right now. My friend had a bone marrow transplant, and the transplanted cells need to grow. I’m sending lots of “Grow, grow!” thoughts to the USA. It’s a pretty basic message, but it still counts as thinking in my book.

But that’s not the only thinking about growth I’ve been doing. With the demonstrations against systemic racism in the USA continuing across the globe, I have to do something. Mark and I have donated some money and probably will give some more. And I have used up my lifetime allocation of “angry” Facebook reaction icons in the last couple of weeks. But I know that I also need to grow in my understanding of the issue of racism, my unconscious assumption that whiteness is the norm for the world and the best that it has to offer.

To that end, Mark and I are participating in an online class offered by our church in Texas. The book we’re studying is called Me and White Supremacy, and it’s by Layla Saad. The book is intended for use over 28 days. Short daily readings on topics such as white fragility and white privilege are followed by questions you’re supposed to reflect on in a journal. So far I’m through Day 5, and, wow, this is an uncomfortable experience. I keep remembering things I did or said or failed to do or say that make me cringe. And that doesn’t count the things that others have done or said (or not done or said) around me. 

Here’s an example of what Saad is talking about. Just yesterday, a member of Mark’s family posted something awful. I blocked the source of the post and snoozed the person who made the post, but I didn’t say anything to the family member in question. Mark, bless him, was more direct. He sent this person a message explaining why he was unfriending them. So I exhibited white silence the day after I read and responded to the book’s passage on white silence. God must heave heavy sighs over me. (I also admit to puzzling one sleepy morning over a different friend’s Facebook post about supporting BLM. Why did my friend feel called to voice support for the Bureau of Land Management? But I blame this lapse on the fact that I hadn’t had coffee yet.)

All I can say is, I am ready to grow in this area. I’m actually a person who craves growth. Learning new information all the time was one of my favorite things about being a lawyer. Mark and I have settled in Spain in order to learn a new language, experience a new culture, and travel to new places. I just need a grass angel. I need to be equipped to grow in my understanding of systemic racism and my complicity in it. And I’m hoping that, like the mountain laurel, I can produce some blooms that will make the world a better place.


Promises, promises

img_2835-1Yesterday was the thirty-fifth anniversary of the day Mark and I got engaged. We always celebrate this day; this year we had a delicious, leisurely dinner on the terrace of a local restaurant. The palms overhung our table, the crescent moon shone up in the sky, and the Mediterranean splashed and frolicked in front of us. It was a lovely night.

Of course, because of who we are, there’s a funny story attached to our engagement. Although we’d only been dating three and a half months, Mark and I were pretty serious in May 1985. Late in the month we shared a romantic weekend in New Orleans. I thought Mark might pop the question on that trip, but no dice – which was fine, because we had a great time. But I was a little puzzled.

Fast forward a couple of days. Mark was moving, and I agreed to come to his apartment after work and help him pack boxes. We had a quick dinner at his place, and then he went back to his office in downtown Houston to make revisions on a document and give the new draft to the word processing pool (remember them?) to turn around. Kind soul that I am, I stayed at his apartment and packed boxes. I remember in particular that I packed the contents of the bookshelf in Mark’s spare bedroom. One volume really grabbed my attention. It was the alumni notes from Mark’s 10th high school reunion, which he’d attended shortly before we met. Mark’s entry included his educational achievements and work history to date, but the note at the end was what got me going. It proclaimed, “And girls, he’s still single!” I specifically recall looking at that sentence and thinking, “Not for long, if I have anything to say about it.”

Anyway, Mark eventually returned, and he asked me to take a break and sit on the couch with him. I complied unwillingly, partly because I didn’t like that couch (it was an atrocious green and white brocade, and lumpy to boot), but mostly because I wanted to keep on packing. Focusing on the latter issue, I was contemplating how to induce him to get rid of all the wire coat hangers he’d accumulated in his coat closet when he finished whatever he said before and ended with, “So, will you marry me?” Okay, that I heard, but I was so startled that I burst out with, “What? You’re kidding!” and then proceeded to laugh uproariously. Poor Mark. It was not my finest hour. When I finally managed to stop laughing and looked at my sweet, mortified suitor, I recovered enough to get out some sort of affirmative. Despite the laughter, he didn’t rescind the offer, and next weekend we went shopping for the middle ring you see above. No, he didn’t show up with a sparkler. Being a smart man, he knew I’d want a say in what kind of ring I got. (P.S. There is a story about the top ring, the solitaire wrap, that I got for our 20th anniversary. It involves cold water, marijuana, cave tubing in Belize, and one of the reasons I’m especially fond of the state of Pennsylvania. But we’ll save that tale for another post.)

When I started thinking about this post, I’d intended to stop here, after adding just a bit of verbiage about how happy we are and how grateful I am for this lovely man. But while both of those things are still true, between then and now George Floyd was brutally murdered by a now ex-police officer in Minneapolis. And as a privileged White person, I feel that I can’t just write a fluff piece here and call it a day. The inhumanity and the horror of this act, and the commonplace nature of the destruction of Black bodies, makes that impossible. George Floyd sat at our dinner table under the Spanish palms last night as we talked about him. Sandra Bland drank a toast with us. Trayvon Martin sampled my hake and Mark’s salmon. How can they not?

See, it’s all about promises. When Mark and I got engaged, we made promises to each other. Yes, I will marry you. Yes, I will love you. Yes, I will be true to you. We turned those promises into vows in September of 1985, and the vows turned into the love, laughter, children, friends, and  mutual support of the last three and a half decades. But what, I wonder, do we promise our African-American citizens?

John Locke said that our social contract, the mutual promises made between the state and the people in it, includes protection from harm and fair enforcement of the law. Up until the last few years, I believed that, more or less, the American version of this social contract extended to all persons. But I can no longer deny the evidence of my own eyes and the witness of people of color. The social contract described above extends to me, because of my race. And equally, tragically, it fails to extend to people of color. The promises made to them look a lot different, as far as I can tell. Those promises seem to be that their lives are expendable, their very existence is subject to a White man’s adrenaline-addled whim or, perhaps, calculated desire. I can’t imagine bearing that knowledge day in and day out. I can’t get my head around living in a place that hates you. It has to be a nightmare. So while I’m horrified that rioting has occurred in response to George Floyd’s murder, I also am beginning to understand where the impetus to riot comes from.

So here we are at the last paragraph, where I usually try to tie up some inspiring thought with a cheery epigram. I’m sorry, folks, but tonight I’ve got nothing but a broken heart at the broken promises our country has made. I love Mark, and I love the USA. But my soul is sad and heavy. May God have mercy on us all.

Curtsying in the bathtub


One of the most fun Christmas presents I ever got was a Magic Eight Ball. Do you remember these devices? You asked a question and turned the ball over. A little multi-sided die inside the ball would float through the liquid in which it was suspended and show you an answer. Options on the answers included, if memory serves, yes, no, it is most likely, outlook good, signs point to no, and cannot predict now. The eight ball was a must for sleepovers, because you could huddle with your friends and ask about life’s critical issues, such as the accuracy of reports that X and Y had actually kissed each other or whether Z liked you. We had lots of vaguely scandalous fun with the Eight Ball. And if you think about it, as a source of information it probably was about as good as half of what you see on Facebook.

One thing I never needed the Eight Ball for, though, was making decisions. For better or worse, I’ve always been a decisive person. I remember many years ago when our daughter Jane was a toddler and we were in San Francisco on vacation. A friend who lived in that lovely city had joined us for the evening and was walking with us as we returned to our hotel near Union Square. We were low on milk, which Jane enjoyed first thing in the morning and which we could stash in our room’s minibar. So as we walked by a small store selling drinks, snacks, and the like, I ducked in to buy a pint of milk. When I emerged from the little space, our friend was shaking his head. “I’m impressed,” he said. “When you saw a store, you just went in and got what you needed. I would have stood on the sidewalk and tried to decide whether this was the closest store to the hotel and whether this was where I’d get the best price.” This is me in a nutshell. If I overpaid by two cents and carried my pint of milk one more block than I might have needed to, I’m okay with that. We had milk. (P.S. There were no stores nearer our hotel, as it turned out.)

So imagine my surprise last Thursday when I found myself dithering over the question of whether to attend my book group meeting on Friday. I’d read the book and wanted to discuss it. But the organizer wanted the six members to meet in person at a cafe; what’s more, I’d have to ride the bus to get there. Small in-person meetings and bus rides are permitted now, with masking and distancing, but the prospect made me nervous and left me torn as to whether to attend. Is there such a thing as FOGO, which I guess is kind of the opposite of FOMO? Anyway, I couldn’t make up my mind and drove Mark crazy by repeatedly enumerating the pros and cons. Ultimately rain intervened and spared me the choice, because we opted to meet by Zoom instead of in person. But I noticed my unusual state of indecision; apparently it’s an unexpected byproduct of the pandemic.

In all fairness, we’re all probably a little bit at sea now. It’s like in the Star Trek episodes (and there are many) where the Enterprise has to navigate through space or time or the innards of some menacing galactic creature where there are no landmarks. What’s safe? What’s risky? What’s downright dangerous? Familiar guidelines and practices have become obsolete – impractical at best and life-threatening at worst. Perhaps indecision isn’t that surprising, under the circumstances.

I know I need to decide how to forge ahead, though, because life moves on even in the midst of uncertainty. So I’ve decided to make my COVID decisions one at a time. First up is the question of how to greet people. The kisses on both cheeks we had learned to give and receive here are history. Handshakes and hugs also are out. The “live long and prosper” Vulcan greeting, speaking of Star Trek, doesn’t make sense to some of our acquaintance, and even people who know what it is sometimes can’t make their fingers respond in kind. And I don’t dare use the University of Texas “Hook ‘em Horns” sign, because that means something truly different in Europe than it does in Austin. Getting arrested is not in my quarantine plans.

All is not lost, though. The namaste hands together greeting is a contender, but overall I’m leaning towards curtsying. It’s pretty and sweetly nostalgic in a Jane Austen kind of way. However, it’s also difficult. So I’ve been practicing curtsying in the bathtub, with a non-slip mat under my feet and shower enclosure walls to balance on if I start to wobble. It’s kind of fun, except when my knees creak. Following the example of Cinderella’s stepsister, I suppose I need to rub some unicorn oil on my joint to stop the offending sound. But Carrefour appears to be out of this salve, so I’ll just have to live with the noise as I keep practicing. 

This is all goofy, I know. Even as I savor my bathtub silliness and my dreams of unicorn oil, I’m aware that many serious decisions lie ahead. We’ve all got to learn how to live in our new normal. Personally, I’m going to have to dig down and find my old decisive self, the one who apparently has been quarantining somewhere else but who needs to show the heck back up now. And it’s no use asking my Magic Eight Ball for guidance. About ten years ago the die got stuck in the answer window, and now it perpetually advises me to “Ask again later.” So I guess it’s up to each of us to sort out the available information, take a deep breath, and move forward. God help us all as we do.

Mask and ye shall (not) receive

img_2817The day before yesterday was American Mother’s Day – hence the card. Being COVID-conscious, Mark skipped shopping and printed this one. We also had a really fun Zoom chat with our kids, and the five of us played an online game of Clue together. It was a great day.

The day also gave me an opportunity to reflect on motherhood and what kind of mom I am. Now, I admit to having made my share of parenting mistakes (and probably part of somebody else’s). But one thing I did do right, or at least I hope I did right, was to say yes whenever that was possible. As a parent, you have to say no to a lot of what your child asks for, so it seems fair to say yes when you can. Actually, what it seems to me to be is kind. And don’t we want to be kind to our kids and hope that they, in turn, will be kind to others?

Most times when we’re kind, I suspect, it doesn’t take much effort. I remember one soccer game with our daughter Mary when she was little, maybe five or six. In the car on the way to the game, she announced that henceforth she was no longer Mary, but was Mary Gloria. (No, I don’t remember whether she said “henceforth,” but even at that tender age it was entirely possible that she did.) For those unacquainted with the naming practices in our family, it may be worth knowing that both of our daughters have my last name as their middle name, so this Gloria business pretty much came out of nowhere. The only Gloria she knew personally was the mother of one of her friends, so perhaps it was an homage to that lovely lady. Or maybe she’d decided to be more like her dear friend Mary Dawn, who always went by two names. I’d list the possibility that it was a sudden bout of religious fervor, as this sounds sort of Catholic, but we’re Methodist, and so for us the Virgin Mary only headlines at Christmastime and makes cameo appearances at Cana and the cross. So such a spiritual awakening seems rather unlikely.

Anyhow, wherever that came from, suddenly I had a new child in the back seat. It would have been possible to get huffy and insist on the name we picked at birth, but it seemed to me that there was very little downside to giving in on this one. It’s not like she wanted to be called something objectionable, like “Mary Serial Murderer” or “Mary Buttface.” Besides, fads like this tend to come and go with kids, and it seemed unlikely that she’d trot off to college in a dozen years or so as Mary Gloria. So I allowed as how that was fine, and we turned into the parking lot for the soccer game. True to my word, all my shouted maternal encouragement during that game was addressed to my darling daughter’s preferred appellation. “That’s the way to kick, Mary Gloria!” “Great block, Mary Gloria!” “Good save, Mary Gloria!” The other parents may have thought I was bananas, but who cares? The game ended, my red-faced soccer warrior got her cool-down popsicle, and we made our way back to the car. As we pulled out of the parking lot, she informed me that she was reverting to her original name. And so I’d done an easy thing that made her happy.

We had similar experiences with our daughter Jane. For example, for about a year when she was four or so, the only cereal she would eat was a combination of Kix, Cheerios, and Rice Chex. This made breakfast a tad more complicated than it might otherwise have been, but it was a little thing we could do to make her happy. 

The point of these tales is that doing something small is often all that’s required to do a kindness. This is why it’s incomprehensible that many people in the USA are livid at the prospect of wearing masks in public. To me, this is an easy way to protect those around you from something that could kill them. The arguments I’ve seen online defending the no-mask position seem absurd. Consider “You can’t tell me what to do with my body.” Actually, we do this all the time. Prohibitions on assault, battery, rape, and the like all tell us to refrain from doing dangerous things with our bodies. Then there’s “I have a right to go into any business I want dressed however I want.” Well, that’s dumb. Virtually any restaurant, for example, will refuse to serve barefoot patrons. It’s a health and safety issue (where have I heard that before?). This argument is particularly perverse for ardent supporters of private property rights for businesses. If Dollar General insists on masks in its stores, it’s their right, right? And don’t get me started on the legislator from Ohio who refuses to wear a mask because it hides the image of the God who created him. Carried to its logical end, this argument will lead this guy to walk around naked, and that’s not okay with me. There are parts of God’s image I’d really rather he kept tucked away.

So here’s my simple plea: wear a mask in public. It’s easy and it’s kind. Keep this virus from spreading. Please mask, so that we may not receive.




Not the apocalypse they wanted

img_2799I try to read just enough news every day to stay informed without being driven crazy. This balance has been hard to find lately, as reports of protesters clamoring for their God-given right to go to Applebee’s instead of staying home to avoid spreading dangerous infections fill not only news sites but also my Facebook feed. My friends are pretty much incredulous in the face of these folks, and I have to admit that I agree that the protestors appall me with their lack of knowledge and empathy. But I do have a theory about why they’re protesting.

Over the years, I’ve interacted with a fair number of people on what I consider to be the far right. Many of these folks hold extremely conservative views of Christianity, and virtually all are solid fans of the current administration. And they seem to me to have one thing in common: they like to be scared. They secretly relish fearing government takeovers and the wrath of God, in equal measure. Every era seems to have its favorite boogey men. When I was a kid, people talked about being afraid of Communism, the Pill, and fluoridation of the water supply. When I was in college, it was the Trilateral Commission, Scientology, and hairy-legged feminists.

We’re still living with delicious worries about the Rapture, which I first tumbled to in the 1980s and 1990s. In one notable family visit during this period, an in-law offered to amuse our kids by supplying them with a copy of the children’s edition of the Left Behind series. (That discussion went well, as you can image.) And this next bit Is slightly off-topic, but I do want to note that the men (and they were all men, which probably explains a lot) who decided what to include in the Bible pondered long and hard about putting in the book of Revelation. They stuck it in at the 11th hour. I maintain that this decision was an ill-considered last minute one, sort of like when you’re packing and decide to put just one more thing into your suitcase. That’s how you end up taking dress shoes on a hiking trip or why you include six pairs of tweezers in your shipment of household goods to Spain. As with five pairs of those tweezers, we would be better off if Revelation itself had been left behind.

Anyway, our list of demons du jour includes government takeovers and COVID-19, the latter mishmashing left-wing media, gays, China, Bill Gates, and the World Health Organization. People are brandishing firearms and badly-spelled signs at rallies in state capitals in the USA. They’re doing this because they are determined, impossibly, to force their way back to what life was like a few months ago. They are using the weapons they know and cherish: guns, claims of fake news, and right-wing Christianity.

The problem is that they didn’t get the apocalypse they wanted.

Lots of these folks have been preparing for an apocalypse for years. They have canned food (and one suspects, a great deal of the toilet paper that recently flew off the shelves in stores), generators, and arsenals. They’re ready for the battles that they’ve goggled over in movies and play-acted in video games. The plot involves saving people by being the best-armed badass in the neighborhood and protecting grateful and very good-looking women and children by laying down blazes of gunfire and explosions. Mel Gibson and Bruce Willis, back when they were good-looking, are the archetypes.

But our disaster is way off-script. You can’t shoot a germ.

Think about it. It’s kind of like putting up a Christmas tree, complete with lights, tinsel, presents, and carols in the background, just in time for Easter. The protesters’ equipment just isn’t terribly helpful, except maybe for the toilet paper. This isn’t an apocalypse you defeat by emulating action heroes. This is one you defeat by inaction and patience – by staying home, by standing in lines six feet apart waiting your turn to enter a grocery store, and by wearing a little fabric mask, not a maniacal expression, on your face.

The heroes of the pandemic are similarly lacking in derring-do. Medical personnel, for example, have brains and not necessarily brawn, education and not necessarily wise-cracking street smarts. For heaven’s sake, they wear scrubs and not ragged t-shirts. They pack N95s instead of AK-47s. And the other heroes of this pandemic? They’re also dramatically un-dramatic. They operate cash registers at grocery stores, fill prescriptions at pharmacies, and deliver Amazon boxes. They drive trucks, not crazily across a desert like Mad Max, but slowly and carefully through the near-deserted streets of cities. Even the police are a disappointment. People who violate stay-at-home orders are not taken down in a hail of gunfire. Instead, officers write tickets, all while wearing uniforms that now include surgical masks and blue Latex gloves. It’s enough to make Bruce Willis weep.

So I think what we’re seeing is anger at having been dealt a loser apocalypse. For my part, I’m all right with that, since I possess zero skills that would come in handy during a violent disaster. I can tear apart an argument but have no clue how to disembowel a zombie. I have shot a gun once, during target practice at a girls’ camp. However, that was before my vision needed correction, so shooting things now might be problematic. I might be able to drive Mad Max’s truck, but only if it had an automatic transmission. Good cup holders also would be a definite plus. And I’d probably signal as I was turning wildly to evade my pursuers – it’s a deeply-ingrained habit – thereby giving away my intended escape route.

I’m okay with this state of affairs. After all, I’m one of those people who closes my eyes on roller coasters and hasn’t seen a scary movie since 1980, when for a week I had to sleep with the lights on after seeing the movie The Shining. And, in the end, the parts of the Bible I cling to don’t come from Revelation. Instead, I’m thinking of the story of Naaman in 2 Kings. Remember this one? Naaman, a Syrian general, suffered from a skin disease and, understandably, wanted to be rid of it. He finally came to the prophet Elisha and asked for a cure. Elisha apparently was busy binge-watching Netflix or something when Naaman showed up, so all he did was send a message to the waiting dignitary to go wash in the rather unimpressive River Jordan. Naaman was not thrilled with either Elisha’s non-appearance or the simplicity of the proposed remedy. He wanted a bigger show for his healing. Finally persuaded that doing something easy wouldn’t be beneath his dignity, Naaman bathed in the river and was healed. Here’s a hero for our times. Let’s do the simple things that will save us all, like wearing masks and stay home doing Nancy Drew jigsaw puzzles. Let’s make this our kind of apocalypse.




Keep Easter Weird

img_2806 ‘Twas the day of Easter, and all through the town/Not a human appeared going up or down. Or something like that. I know that the forerunner of my ditty is from a different holiday, but there’s certainly no one out today.

This circumstance may be unusual at Easter in the USA, where kids will be hunting Easter eggs and creating colorful confetti messes with cascarones, but in Spain the quiet and solitude today are downright weird. Typically even the humblest village would have a procession with large floats carried on poles supported by cadres of folks who train all year for this joyous duty. Onlookers in bright clothes would line the streets to pay reverent homage, celebrate the Easter story, or just enjoy the spectacle. But this year the country celebrates Easter in lockdown, and we are all attending Zoom church in our pajamas instead crowding into a sanctuary in our Sunday best. This holiday, is, in short, weird.

Now, we’re all doing our best to celebrate the miracles of resurrection and rebirth. Electronic Easter greetings abound, and several friends have posted lovely pictures of decorated eggs and beautiful flowers in their homes. Mark and I are doing our bit. He picked out “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” on his guitar this morning, and we had chocolate flavoring in our morning coffees. We’ve been to a couple of virtual services already and plan to attend the one our Austin church will do in a bit. And displayed above are the butterflies we’ve made and hung in our living room. Mark strung them up last night as I talked with a friend in the USA.

Hanging strings of butterflies is a tradition of our home church in the capitol city of Texas (a city, I might add, whose unofficial motto is “Keep Austin Weird”). All through Lent, butterfly shapes cut from colored paper are available in the pews. Congregants write prayers on them, and the butterflies go into the collection plate that’s passed during the service. Those butterflies are deposited into urns, which represent cocoons. Between Good Friday and Easter, the butterflies are strung onto cords that are then hung, criss-crossed, above the pews in the sanctuary. The colorful prayers of the people emerge and grace our worship space for several weeks. The one exception was the year some bridezilla who’d rented our sanctuary decided that our butterflies looked tacky and, disobeying strict injunctions to the contrary, cut them all down. If she thinks love on the fly is tacky, I wish her and her groom the best of luck. They’re going to need it.

No one is celebrating Easter in our sanctuary this year, but our senior pastor has urged us all to uphold our tradition and display butterflies in our home. This suggestion presented a problem for us; Mark and I don’t stock colored paper, and stores here that would are closed. We ended up raiding the paper recycling bin for colorful pasteboard. The pink butterflies are from a cereal box, the yellow ones from a three-pack of tuna, and the orange ones are from a picture of a cheese pizza on a pizza box. My personal favorite is the red one, which came from a box of baking powder. The shapes are a bit wobbly, as I cut them freehand. But never say I went to first grade for nothing!

So this holiday celebration is quite out of the ordinary. But if you think about it, Easter is weird, too. The Bible tells us that finding an empty tomb came as a surprise, first to the women and then to Peter and John. Mary also generally probably didn’t confuse Jesus with the local cemetery gardener, although given the circumstances she gets points in my book just for still being upright. We usually celebrate Easter with pomp and some degree of glitz, but at its heart, the day is just flat bizarre – in the most wonderful way possible, of course.

So Mark, the butterflies, and I are keeping Easter the Easter tradition of weirdness, along with the rest of the lockdown world. May the promise of rebirth as ushered in on the oddest day ever infuse each and every one of us. Keep Easter weird, my friends. And stay safe.